Melanie Yazzie
Professor of Art, Head of Printmaking
University of Colorado Boulder

I am Professor of Printmaking in the Department of Art and Art History at University of Colorado – Boulder.

I work in the mediums of printmaking, painting, and sculpture. I have focused on two goals: to educate through art, and to increase knowledge about safe printmaking approaches. I consider my work contributing to a broader world, and I, as the artist, serve as an agent of change. Art making is the mode through which I encourage others to learn about social, cultural, and political phenomena shaping the contemporary lives of Native peoples in the United States and beyond. In addition, I work to educate students and other print artists about safe, non-toxic methods of printmaking – a unique approach to printmaking in a field where toxic chemicals are commonly used in producing prints.

My prints, paintings and sculptures draw upon the rich the cultural heritage of my Diné people (referred to as the Navajo People in the English language). The pieces I create stem from the thought and belief that I as a Diné person must create beauty and harmony from within me, from above, from below, from in front, from behind and from my core. We are taught to seek out beauty and create it with our thoughts, action, and prayers. Therefore, when I begin developing a piece of work, be it a print, a painting or a ceramic piece, I start by centering myself, focusing my attention on highlighting the strengths of the image. As a piece emerges, it emulates the values and material culture of my experience growing up in the Diné society. I view my art making as a way to help people confront and improve the conditions in their own communities. For example, when people participate in making art and telling their own stories, they can create opportunities for change.

The work I produce is informed and shaped by my personal experiences or life events; it then takes on a life of its own. I seek to tell many stories through my work. The stories may be about something real or something imagined or a dream and the initial story serves as a tool to get at a bigger story I have to tell. The history of Native America and Native peoples includes forced assimilation and cultural genocide that has occurred due in great part to government boarding schools. Native youth and communities today are burdened with the consequences of this history. I see great social and economic problems layered beyond oversimplified solutions. Native peoples are also impacted by an educational system that prioritizes knowledge foreign to our community’s indigenous knowledge.

The work I make presents a vision that contrasts with the broken society from which I come. The works I made in the early years of my career first confronted many of these issues head on. Depictions of the harsh realities of Native peoples (i.e, racism, identity conflict, poverty, abuse, etc.) in my earlier works certainly challenged observers to engage with difficult issues.  I learned that in order to engage people in the work, I had to make work with a positive twist to give me the strength I needed to do the larger work of teaching and trying to find another way to bring to the forefront issues evident in Native communities.

The difficult stories are still here to tell; however, they are told from a strength-based perspective. The work I produce reaches individuals who share similar experiences – and it is through the discussion of the art that learners have an opportunity to grow and feel empowered.  The work also speaks to those who did not know many of these truths, and the art creates an opening through which they can learn about Native peoples in a different and more informed light.  As more observers and participants engage the different art pieces, they see what the works represent and, in turn, become part of my project to educate people about who we are as Indigenous people.

Art consumers began to share what they learned at lectures and to become a part of the dissemination of the message through invitations to show the work in new locations around the world. The stories in the artwork are layered and have intentional images or symbols embedded in them that signal back to people from my homeland. I seek to create messages that are generalizable so that people can see a part of themselves and their experience in the work.

My work continues to draw strength from my travels around the world.  My travels are a significant part of the intentional message about working with and learning about Indigenous peoples.  I have connected with Indigenous people in many communities around the world, from New Zealand to the villages in the arctic, from the pueblos in the Southwest to the Indigenous peoples of Russia, these travels have been the impetus for continued dialogue about Indigenous cultural practices, language, song, story-telling, and survival. Our histories are linked and through educational exchanges we become empowered. A major strength of my art work is that it draws upon these travels, these teachings, and the relationships developed to tell truths and to perhaps spark resolve.

The work I engage in, gallery exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and university course-work, enables me to serve as a bridge between my community and the outside non-Native world. I am very careful to qualify that I can only tell my truth and I acknowledge that I am one voice from my community. My work and my words can only represent me and my experience, and if others seek connection, we might find overlap in experience and meaning making.  My contribution to the field is delivered through the work shown in galleries, the lectures I present, and the workshops I give to groups.  A major theme evident throughout the series of work is the cultural influences embedded in the images, symbols, colors, textures, materials, and process.

My work continues to stretch beyond the boundaries of the United States, to international venues, galleries, and conferences. I see the connections and disconnections, the new relationships emergent in the production of the work, the growth in my processes, and finally I witness evolution in the imagery presented in the prints, paintings and sculptures. I intentionally seek to be an artist/educator who is an agent of change, using art making as the vehicle to address and talk about issues that are difficult to face.  I believe that being a change agent while maintaining my artist stance is critical to the ways in which I teach students at University of Colorado –Boulder and beyond.  I seek a sustained opportunity to strengthen my work and I know the opportunities to continue educating people about the contemporary American Indian experience will remain at the center of my art work.